It’s easy to panic when the money is gone. Financial transitions are one of the scariest ways to enter the Place of Uncertainty. Looking backward years later, a few months may seem like more of a blip or a speed bump. At the time, though, there’s no way to know how long they’ll last or how exactly they’ll end.
I know whereof I speak. I’ve had to do this a few times in my life for various reasons. I started wandering down Memory Lane a bit, thinking what I would do if I were out of work, single, in debt, food insecure, with no way to pay the rent.
What I did that worked for me was, essentially, to find a sponsor. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but that’s what I was doing. This strategy may work for others.
Getting a sponsor when you’re desperate and broke is something that plenty of people do. Usually this sponsor answers to ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ This isn’t always an option. Not everyone has parents. Not all parents are in a financial position to help out. Sometimes there is another kid there already. Maybe the parent is sort of looking for a sponsor too.
I lay all this out because some who are reading this may be in more of a position to be the sponsor, rather than hunt for one, and it helps to have that extra bit of understanding and compassion.
I didn’t necessarily go to someone looking for a place to stay. It was more like I had nothing else to talk about, and because I shared my pitiful situation far and wide, someone would pop up and offer to help out. Once it was a former roommate, but other times it would be someone I barely knew.
This is important because we don’t always realize that the world is so full of giving, caring people who are willing to take a chance on someone.
Usually the person who is willing to help out isn’t in a great financial situation either. This is why the situation usually works like this:
You can sleep there, and bring some of your stuff, but there isn’t room for all of it, and probably not for any of your pets. You feed yourself and you can have a little room on one shelf in the fridge. And you pitch in for utilities and/or part of the rent.
For a lot of families, even $200 a month can make the difference while they’re trying to keep it together.
This is where you can start to reframe yourself as an asset, not a pauper or a beggar. You have value! You are bringing something to the table! This can be a situation of mutual benefit!
I was generally welcome as a couch-surfer or fringe semi-roommate because I didn’t have a lot of negatives. Sure, I was flat broke and I didn’t have a car or even know how to drive. But I didn’t smoke or drink or have awkward substance use moments. I didn’t steal. I didn’t have a criminal record. I didn’t raise my voice at anyone, slam doors, punch walls, throw things, etc. I was (and am) generally a quiet, clean, safe person.
I’m not going to claim that I was Mary Poppins. During the situations when I needed a sponsor, and there were a few, my life was shambolic in many ways. I had what I now recognize as Drama. While I did have a plan for my situation, I did not have a plan for avoiding that Drama yet, because I didn’t understand that I could build my life in a way that would largely avoid it.
I did, though, clean up after myself. I didn’t leave trash or dishes lying around. I could use the kitchen or the shower without it looking like a bomb went off. It is impossible to overstate the importance of being clean and tidy when living on the good graces of another household. You simply can’t be as casual about your shoes, bag, clothes, bedding, dishes, food wrappers, electronics, books, notebooks, pens, etc as the people who are on the lease.
I was able to get a sponsor when I needed one because I had a plan. I always feel frantic when I have no income, and bored and restless when I have nothing to do during the day. I was always looking for some way that I could level up and earn my way out of the situation.
The first time, I had a job but not enough savings to pay a deposit on the room. It was fine - I always paid my rent on time.
The second time, I had a pending legal case and a check coming in.
The next time, I was applying for school and I needed somewhere to be until the dorms opened.
The next time, there I was again, able to pay a deposit this time but technically unemployed until Tuesday.
(There are a couple of spots in there that I’m eliding to streamline the narrative).
The thing is, I started my adult life with a part-time minimum wage job at a convenience store. When I got a job as an office temp it felt like I had won the lottery. I was thirty before I had any financial stability to speak of. I hustled my butt off to get through college because I knew that was my only way to earn the kind of income where I could quit bouncing out of penury and into financial disaster over and over.
Now I’m proud to be the one who is able to help. I’ve hosted all sorts of people on my own couch, lent or given money, sometimes anonymously (or hid it somewhere where nobody would find it until I left). I’ll never stop because I can never go back in time and not need a helping hand. It feels like a karmic debt that can never be repaid.
I know from experience that hard times are temporary. Terrifying! Traumatic sometimes! But temporary in the end. There are a lot of people like me out there, who know what it’s like and will respond to an honest plea.
Just remember to always clean up after yourself and be easy to get along with. Hang in there. When things are at their worst, that means it won’t take much for things to get better soon.
Once upon a time there was a little gray parrot named Noelle. She was a tiny bird with an enormous dream. One day, when she grew up, she wished that she could live in a cardboard box.
Then her wish came true!
First, she had one box.
Then, she had two boxes.
Then, she had three boxes.
Before she knew it, the little parrot named Noelle had so many boxes she could hardly count them all. She could climb out of one box and into another box and then climb out again.
Best of all, the little gray parrot was allowed to chew up as much cardboard as she wanted! She could rip it and tear it and shred it and kick it over her shoulder until it fell all over the floor like so many brown cornflakes.
What could possibly be better than living in a box and chewing on cardboard? Mm, mm, delicious!
After a while, Noelle would chew up her boxes so much that they would start to fall over. Then, the very next day, there would be brand-new boxes to munch.
What happened to the old boxes? They fell on the floor in hundreds of little pieces like so many brown cornflakes. That’s what happened to the old chewed-up boxes.
The little parrot named Noelle loved living in a cardboard box. She loved starting all over again with a fresh box whenever she chewed up the old one. There was just one problem.
Every time she went to her box house, she got stuck there. Her box house had no toys, because whenever she found a toy in her nice cardboard house, she picked it up and threw it off her porch. That was her choice. All cardboard, no toys.
But the cardboard house didn’t have any food or water, either. Worst of all, it didn’t have a bathroom.
Poor Noelle. Every time she really started to have fun tearing up her cardboard house, she would start to realize that she needed a break. Then she would have to wait for a cab ride to take her back to her perch.
Whistle, whistle! Whistle for the taxi cab!
Then, one magical day, a new box showed up. It was very skinny and very flat and very long. Where did this box come from? What was in it?
A ladder with every rung a different color!
This was very scary. Whenever there is a ladder, it’s best to stare at it for a while and make sure it doesn’t make any sudden moves.
The next day, the ladder wasn’t scary any more. It had learned to mind its manners.
All of a sudden something happened.
The ladder reached from the box house to the perch!
Now the little gray parrot saw that she could walk back and forth across the ladder bridge whenever she wanted to.
The first day she went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, just to try it out. She shuffled sideways, hanging onto the side of the ladder.
On the second day, she found out she could walk straight forward if she put one foot on the side and the other foot on the rainbow-colored rungs.
Then the little parrot decided that the ladder bridge was the best place to be. She sat in the middle. Sometimes she stood on one foot, because that’s the most comfortable thing to do when you want a nap. Don’t you stand on one foot when you’re tired and you want to sleep?
Another thing you can do on a bridge is eat a piece of lettuce, or maybe some cucumber. Be sure to hold onto it with your toes so you don’t drop it. Cardboard might be delicious, but it’s good to save room for some vegetables too sometimes.
At the end of the day, the little gray parrot named Noelle walked back and forth on the ladder bridge so many times, and ate so much cardboard, that she got very tired. It was almost nine o’clock, and that’s much too late. She went to bed, where she dreamed of eating lots and lots of cardboard the very next day.
I used to write book reviews on Fridays, but I haven’t seemed to be able to finish reading a book for a while. I hope that this children’s story was mildly entertaining and that someone might actually read it to a little kid.
Doomscrolling is that thing where you keep flicking your phone, reading scary news, and you can’t seem to stop, even if you’re already in bed and tired and you know you’d be better off sleeping.
One of my heuristics is to ask myself what the opposite of something is. It can often be pretty funny. For instance, if my natural reaction to something is to think “I hate it here!” I can pause and ask, what would be the opposite of hating this right now? One day, the answer might be to get a burrito, while another day, the answer might be to talk to my brother.
Obviously when I think of doomscrolling, I’m going to have to ask myself, what is its opposite?
Assuming we don’t want to simply engage in another activity, what if there were another kind of ‘scrolling’ that was not full of doom and gloom and dread?
This is part of what led me to doing my tech newsletter.
There isn’t a name for it yet, although don’t worry, I may come up with one before this is done, but I guess what I’m doing is more like optimism-scrolling.
I think that for some weird reason, we have collectively decided to ignore all the fabulous things that have been happening in favor of all the crud. As an historian, this is confusing and strange. I know too much about the past and the daily lives of early people to have any interest in reverting to any of that. This is what drives my interest in futurism.
What I see is that we have vast amounts of knowledge, resources, and talent that could easily be put to work replacing our most pressing problems with amazing things -
Quick example: turn unemployed people into a (well-compensated) labor source for massive infrastructure upgrades, something I thought we would have been several years into by now -
And that doing this work would quickly return positive reinforcement, adding momentum as we start to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to sit and watch as the world falls apart, witnesses to systemic collapse. There are things that we could be doing.
Guess what? Of course it turns out that there are plenty of people doing constructive things while the rest of us are scrolling our way through the dark of night.
I get just as wound around the axle about politics and current events as anyone else. Perhaps more so, since I have that degree in history and all... I only share my bleakest projections with my nearest and dearest, because nothing says ‘I love you’ like ‘gather nigh while I proclaim my grim forecasts.’
The best way I have found to deal with this is to gradually crowd out the current events with what I think of as Future Events.
In other words, innovation.
For instance, there is an entire sub-thread about engineers donating their time to make custom prosthetics and special mobility devices for disabled children. This is beautiful stuff.
It turns out that most people will bend over absolutely backwards to do something altruistic for someone, if they know how. This is even more true if the recipient is a total stranger to them. This is another sub-thread that I follow, call it Acts of Heroism, and there is news in this category every day. A few days ago I watched a video of a man pulling an unconscious man out of a burning car on the freeway while his son watched. Everyone emerged unscathed and now the two men are entering a mentoring relationship.
Are they getting a reality TV show? No? Why not?
Passively absorbing the doom and gloom is unavoidable, sure. I mean, it’s hard to do anything constructive to help if you have no idea what the problems are that need solving. But again, letting your morale be crushed and destroyed by things you feel that you have no control over? How is that constructive in any way?
I often think of stories from my reading in Acts of Heroism when I need a boost. I think, if that man was brave enough to risk his life rescuing someone from a fire, why am I not brave enough to at least make this phone call/send this email/tell someone how I feel? It’s aspirational. I hope that if the moment ever comes, I’ll do more than stand around flapping my hands and screaming. Moral rehearsal.
Doomscrolling is an intervening opportunity. If you’re like me, you have this device with you almost every minute, and sometimes you open it and don’t even remember why, or you set out to do one thing and forgot and started doing something else. Probably you made no conscious decision to start doomscrolling. Probably it was not your intention. Yet it seems to keep happening??
We rarely set as many clear intentions as we could.
Once upon a time, I used to spend hours a day on Facebook. This was before I read the research that about 30% of people’s “friends” are people they follow because they enjoy being annoyed by them. I would post all sorts of articles that interested me, maybe 5% of my total reading, and I would then get pushback from people who would have been better off unfollowing me. I never would have known. Come on, though. Isn’t it more fun to upbraid, chastise, and admonish people who irritate you than to just focus on the people you like?
I took all that energy and put it toward something else. I had this deep desire to connect with people over all the exciting things I was reading, and quite honestly, I wasn’t going to find them anywhere on Facebook. Instead, I started putting together what became my tech newsletter, and that got me my new job, and now a bunch of people with PhDs read it and discuss it with me. For money.
Doing the opposite of whatever can be a fun thought exercise. It can also change your life.
There are an infinite number of things you can do with your time besides doomscrolling - sleep is just one of them - and if you write up a list, it may remind you that you used to do all sorts of great stuff with your time. If you do like reading on your phone for hours, though, try to target your reading time more toward your personal interests and less toward disaster, doom, and gloom. Who knows what you may find?
First off, I have to admit that I’m a total coward about donating blood. I tried to donate once, and I passed out when they did the finger stick, and they asked me not to come back “for several years.”
This is part of what helped me get through COVID-19. I had this fantasy that I would spiritually redeem myself by finally donating convalescent plasma, and the fantasy would help me fight my fear.
But then reality hit.
The first problem was how long it took to get better.
When I first got sick, I thought I would go through hell for five days and then I’d basically be over it. I kept seeing pictures of doctors and nurses already back at work after they had it. Okay cool. Back in April, everyone believed that if you got COVID, you got immunity, and you were safe to go out and help other people who had it.
At least once an hour, I would comfort myself by thinking about how safe I would feel once I got better. I’d think about how I could leave our apartment. I’d think about helping other sick people. I’d actually make myself cry, picturing myself doing someone else’s laundry and bringing them soup.
When I thought about donating plasma and potentially helping four people at once, it about did me in.
I really, really wanted all that to happen. It gave me hope like nothing else. To think: there could be a little army of healthy people helping everyone pull through.
But then it just kept dragging on and on and on.
I was sick for weeks, and I felt like I was truly dying, and when I got through the gate I was really just a shell of my former self.
Quite honestly, almost six months later I still haven’t made it past 85%, and that was only for a couple of weeks. I am still occasionally waking in the middle of the night shaking with cold, even under a duvet with a nighttime low of 68 F. My eyelid is still twitching and sometimes my hands still tremble when I’m tired. Sometimes my heart still pounds for no obvious reason.
I still planned to do it, though. I was still totally going to go in and donate convalescent plasma. I wanted to help people, and I wanted to confront my demons. I also figured it would be the best way to get an antibody test.
My husband is still uncertain about whether he really got exposed or not, which makes him worried for himself, and he’d really like to get his antibodies checked too. He has donated plasma before, because unlike me he is quite brave, so that part doesn’t bother him. We were going to go in as a team.
I did some checking. I found that there were a few different places where we could donate. We could also donate our data and be part of various health studies.
Then it turned out there were some rules. The first was that you are supposed to have tested positive for COVID-19. I wasn’t sure about that one, because I was diagnosed as presumptive positive but I wasn’t able to get a test before I had cleared the infection. Of course my plasma would be valuable under any circumstances, so it was still a good idea to donate.
Then there was a rule that you couldn’t have any medication in your system. I was on antibiotics for the opportunistic bacterial infection that attacked me just as I was clearing COVID. Definitely would have to wait until that was gone.
Then they wanted 30 days with no symptoms. (Now I think it’s 14).
That’s what wound up doing me in. I just couldn’t get there. As a matter of fact, I haven’t yet made it a week without some weird health issue or other.
What it comes down to is that I don’t think whatever is or is not in my blood would necessarily help someone else’s immunity. It doesn’t seem to be doing me all that much good!
I’m lucky in most ways. I just turned 45 - that’s it, that’s the tweet - and I’m doing all right. I still have 20/20 vision. My cholesterol is 150 and my blood pressure, blood glucose, etc are all right on target. I’m graced with a cast-iron stomach and decades of reliable digestion. My doctor (before COVID) told me, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
It’s just that, between March and May 2020, I suddenly started having heart palpitations and serious concerns that I might be having a stroke.
Now, I believe in my body’s innate capacity to heal. Every time I watch a cut gradually fade away I marvel at it all over again. I even cut my eyeball a couple years back, and that healed within days. Just because a virus played Pac-Man in my cells does not mean the damage is permanent. I believe it takes time, rest and sleep and lots of water and cruciferous vegetables.
(And antibiotics and modern pharma, as advised by a mainstream medical professional).
Alas, though, I don’t think I am healing fast enough for my convalescent plasma to be all that useful. There is still a lot of research to be done on this as a treatment, believe it or not, even after a century of speculation and trials. It looks like there is a limited time window, though, for a recovering person’s blood to contain the magic of convalescent plasma.
Also I am still recovering from the case of pneumonia that I got for my birthday.
I mean seriously. I’m not sure whether this saga will ever end. I’d rather that my life is no longer defined by a stupid, pointless disease that I contracted in the dumbest possible way. It’s making me focus inward and inward, trying to heal myself and get myself back to normal, which is boring in the extreme. There is nothing nearly as satisfying in “self-care” as there is in the selfless care for others in need.
Are you braver than I am? Are you tough enough to have a nurse put a little needle in your finger without fainting dead away? Do you have it in you to share that much of yourself? If so, I envy you, and I feel really small in comparison. It haunts me that nothing I will ever do will be quite as charitable as donating blood. I wish that I can be strong enough to try it again one day.
In the meantime, maybe someone with a big heart will think of me and make the call, do the thing that I can’t yet do. Save someone’s life, maybe.
Good things come in small packages. I have to believe that because I have a little parrot, and also because I’m 5’4.” I’ve also come to believe it because my work area measures four feet square.
We made the decision about five years ago to choose the path of financial independence. We sat down and worked out a clear strategy, one that is radical but that has also been done successfully by thousands of people. We chose to go car-free, get rid of most of our stuff, and radically downsize our living space so that we could invest as much of our income as possible.
Most married couples balk at the idea of getting rid of their cars. That’s the major sticking point. Living in a quarter of the space is next-hardest. Getting rid of 90% of their physical possessions sounds like fun, until they realize it’s not all their partner’s stuff but their own stuff, too. Oh, I thought you meant just the kids’ toys. Dang it.
We felt like we were prepared, and we had already downsized three times in five years. Then, out of the blue, we got the opportunity, the double-whammy: The dream job in a city by the beach.
It all happened fast at that point. We had done most of the mental and emotional labor together. We had come up with a vision of our end-game, and now it was legitimately our chance to make it happen. Did we really want it as much as we said we did?
We literally did it in two weeks. We scheduled a garage sale, and whatever was left at the end of the weekend went to a conveniently timed rummage sale in several carloads. Then we got a moving van and put all our remaining stuff in storage, boarded our pets, and moved into an AirBnB for a week until we could pick out an apartment.
It never occurred to either of us that this opportunity of the dream job would turn out to be for both of us. Neither of us thought that I’d end up working there, too.
We certainly never thought we’d be living here for Pandemic 2020.
If we’d realized we would be effectively housebound for a year (psst: probably closer to three), we probably would have chosen a larger place?
Now both of us are working from home, on opposite ends of the couch, and our living room doubles as a shared office cubicle.
The comedy factor here is that we share the space with: a parrot. Little griefer who thinks it’s hilarious to whistle every time one of us is on a hot mic. I rue the day she ever recognized one of our friends on Zoom and figured out that all those faces are actual people. Now she is obsessed with getting on camera and making everyone tell her what a pretty red tail she has.
This is what we have for now. This is where we’ve landed.
Having put so much effort into the path that got us to this apartment, it’s easier for us to accept that we’re sentenced to share the equivalent of a hotel suite, all day every day. About 50% bigger than an RV.
Yes, obviously millions of people are having a harder time than us right now. I come from poverty, I get it. This story is about making radical changes to reach financial freedom, and how that can be both fun and empowering.
Every time I tell a story like this, I hope that at least one person will read it and start wondering, Hmm, what if I tried something like this?
Anyone with a romantic partner has the option to turn to that person and say, Hey babe, I was reading this weird story. What would you think if we...?
This is how relationships are saved, when we look at each other and realize that we can trade the default life for something else. We traded the debt and the lawn care and the commute and the errands and the chores of a standard suburban home. We traded them for independence and living by the beach.
And then it sort of bit us in the butt, because this whole work-from-home thing would have been a lot easier in our newlywed rental house, the one with three bedrooms, two baths, a backyard and a garage workshop. The one with the huge pantry and *gasp* the laundry room.
[The one in the county with 1% of the deaths of our current county]
We’re here. We are where we are. We got ourselves here. Now what?
It turns out, and this is the surprising part, it turns out that a person can get quite a lot done in four square feet!
I realized this the other day while I had my work laptop open, with my desktop monitor above, while talking on my phone through my headphones. Somehow I had room for two keyboards, a trackpad, and a notepad.
Then I realized that if I had a standard-sized desk in the building, the extra space would probably be filled with files and a bunch of office equipment like a stapler and a tape dispenser. All the detritus that is only needed when people are still doing things 19th-century style, aka on paper.
We aren’t going back this calendar year, that’s a 99% certainty.
If/when we do go back, what will happen?
I basically know where I would sit. Hubby and I would commute in together. I’d get up an hour earlier so I would have time to constrain my hair. We’d commute home together and immediately start making dinner. We’d spend close to two additional hours a day, times two people, to go back and forth to a building where we would do the same jobs that we are currently doing successfully at home.
Where does the time come from? It comes from our sleep and our workouts, of course.
I think this change is going to be permanent for information workers like us. At least 40% of people can do their jobs completely online right now, and I suspect it’s actually closer to 60% once the numbers come in. Some people aren’t going to like it, but I think the efficiencies for the employer are so obvious that - why fight it?
This four-square-foot space is likely to be my holding tank for the indefinite future. I think I’m actually okay with that.
I got a new job while I was sick with COVID-19, and the reason I share that is to give people hope. It’s hard to imagine a bigger negative for a panel interview than fighting a serious lung infection. Now that I’m working, I thought I’d share some ideas on the pandemic job market.
First off, you have the great good fortune of not having to compete against me for a job, because I’m out of the game. Tee here.
Look, it’s important to treat unemployment with a sense of humor. Why? Because if you get sucked into despair and dread, it will give you a different attitude than if you find a way to project confidence and good cheer. Fake it if you have to, but attitude is a bigger determiner for hiring than your resume is.
Always be emitting rays that express, I can help you solve your biggest problems.
As opposed to: I have big problems.
Which is probably true! But money can probably solve many or most of those problems. I love financial problems because they can be solved with money. Problems that cannot be solved with money - like COVID-19 - are, as they say, “the suck.”
During my divorce, I was plagued with a series of unlikely problems. I had no income because I was in the midst of a workers comp case, then the IRS came after me because someone else’s salary was reported under my Social Security number, then I fell down the stairs and broke my tailbone, then the court dismissed my divorce case three times. It was a really annoying year. A year full of lawyers, a year when I earned $1410 and almost all of it went to legal fees.
I started working for money when I was 10 years old, but that was the year that I really learned how to make something out of nothing and figure out how to get by.
Honestly, of course. No matter how bad things are, committing a crime will make it worse. Either you get busted and you lose everything, or you become known to other criminals.
If you want to become financially comfortable, your reputation is quite literally everything. There is an entire different universe available to people with good credit who can pass a criminal background check and get a security clearance. Keep that in mind if you don’t feel like you have much else going for you - you may be drastically undervaluing your clean record.
There are three huge mistakes that we tend to make when we’re unemployed:
Point one: If you’re going to let pessimism control your search, to the point that you’re willing to take a bad job with bad hours and a horrible commute working for a mean boss, then please at least do me one single favor.
Make sure you take that cruddy position in a field that you want to know more about.
My family always wanted me to learn a trade, and by that they meant a blue-collar job such as an electrician. I do have a trade, except the collar is pink instead of blue. With basic secretarial skills, I can get a job in any industry anywhere in the world. If I wanted to, I could use my skills to get an entry-level position in law or accounting or marketing or interior design or whatever I like.
This is why I feel like I am better equipped than a lot of people to give job search advice. I’ve worked in dozens of fields. As an admin, I also dealt with dozens of job applicants. I even worked in an employment agency for a few months.
I’m buds with a couple of astronauts, a couple of professional athletes, and a few people who run their own restaurants. They’re cool people, but none of them has ever had a normal job!
Point two: the person offering you advice may be rich, may be brilliant, and also may know nothing whatsoever about how to get you the job you actually want. You’re better off Googling your field and reading blogs by people who do that type of work.
(And if they’re as broke as you, then why are you listening to them??)
Point three: about the job search. I’m working with a few people who are down on their luck right now, and not once has one of them actually beat me to something I suggested that they do. The default is to take several days to apply for something when someone brings it to their attention, then spend the rest of the time worrying.
Eight hours a day, five days a week is the minimum. That means researching your field and it means going directly to the source (the company where you want to work) and it means writing as many separate, targeted versions of your resume as necessary.
If you raise money for one single thing, let it be to pay a professional to go over your resume with you. Sell stuff if you have to. I paid a consultant to go over mine with me, and it got me almost 50% more than I made at my last job. I also got hired for only the third position I applied for.
This brings up another point, which is: multiple streams of income. This is what poor and rich people have in common, that middle class people do not. Don’t expect to pay all your expenses through a single source.
If you need a thousand dollars, you can do it several ways:
Earn a thousand dollars from one job;
Earn $500 from two sources;
Earn $250 from four sources;
Earn $100 from ten sources;
Any other variation you can think of.
The basic strategies are to work for someone else or work for yourself. If you’re working for someone else, pick something that tends to survive financial downturns and then make yourself indispensable. If you’re working for yourself, are you selling to broke people or rich people? I can sell something that costs $1 to almost anyone. If I’m selling to rich people, I want to charge as much as I can get away with or they’ll think I’m incompetent.
These are the areas where I would be looking, if I were unemployed right now:
COVID-centric jobs. Anything medical. Contact tracing. Insurance and medical billing. Online universities and tutoring services. Collections agencies and repo. Biohazard cleanup. Real estate and auctions. Bankruptcy and payday lending. Mortuaries and funeral homes. This stuff is depressing but it can’t be argued that someone will pay for it to get done.
Side hustles: You probably want to avoid the traditional stuff, like delivery and ride-share, cleaning, babysitting, or dog-walking because you want to avoid physical contact with people, right? I would look to offering services online to people who are housebound. Is there anything at all you can teach, especially to bored kids? Are you good at something like interior design, makeup, or styling? Can you tutor? Do you have something unique you can do on camera, like sock puppets, that someone might pay for you to do to entertain their kids?
Think for the future. Whatever you wind up doing, it’s for the short term. Think about what you want to be doing five years from now. Not what you think you can do with your current resume, but what actually appeals to you. Five years is plenty of time to train for it, whatever that is.
Keep in mind that when times are hard, you have very little to lose. That makes it a much better time to take risks! Scarcity thinking will make you want to contract and pull in your energies and aim lower, but that’s the biggest risk of all. Aim high - there’s less competition up there.
I’m going to do a book club at work, how nuts is that?
More interestingly, I had a fantasy book club idea back before COVID, and I appear to have manifested it into being with my thoughts alone, because I was invited to one of the same description and I didn’t have to organize it myself. Let’s get to that in a minute
What I’ve been thinking about lately is what to do now that the world is upside down, and looks like it will be for quite a while. The natural response to this would be to run down the street screaming in your underwear, and if you’ve been doing that, cheers. Don’t blame you at all.
One of my most common ideation tools, though, is “What would be the opposite of this?” This is my idea of a Zen-like koan, a nonsensical idea, because most things are not binary and thus do not have an opposite. Like, what’s the opposite of a watermelon? The creative part of the mind really seems to like this type of question, and it can spin out endlessly.
Okay, so, what would be the opposite of isolated misery?
Sounds good, let’s go with that!
What kinds of things provide both a feeling of connection and a feeling of contentment?
That’s a sector where I feel like ‘online book club’ would be a natural fit.
The book club I had in mind was a Toastmasters club where all the speeches would be about books. I figured the members could just show up and talk about whatever they were reading, or related topics. Books they loved in the past, books they bought and couldn’t get into, favorite bookstores, new releases they had pre-ordered, TV and movie adaptations of books and how they compare, book podcasts, reading technology, buying new shelves... Anything and everything book-related.
This was my secret plan for a discovery process.
One of my least favorite things about book clubs is that basically all they are is 1. An excuse to get together and drink wine while 2. Confessing that nobody finished the book (except for me) and then 3. Complaining that they didn’t really enjoy it. Since I don’t like wine and I usually enjoyed the book, my presence was more or less an annoyance.
I figured if I made a club where everyone just talked about whatever book they wanted, or a book they had read at any point in their life, then people wouldn’t feel guilty about “not doing their homework.” They wouldn’t have to prepare. We could connect over our shared love of reading, rather than over our feelings of guilt for not measuring up in the social comparison contest.
My goal here was to have a medium-sized group of people share whatever books were exciting them, and then I could take notes and go off and read whatever sounded the best to me.
Before COVID, I had a plan to meet in our one little indie bookstore, two miles up the street from me. They hosted three monthly book clubs, I knew that, and I had it on my calendar to attend one and then pitch the owner. I had already been by to scope out where they held their meetings and how much space there would be. Ah, but then the shutdown happened just in time to cancel the very meeting I was planning to attend.
Imagine my surprise to discover, when I went to their website to check what book they were doing back in March, that - THEY ARE MEETING IN PERSON ALREADY. Whoa, that’s brave. This bookstore is like the size of my apartment. How many people are they planning to cram in there??
Anyway. Not happening. Not sure that holding an open book in front of my face counts as PPE.
I didn’t have a lot of time to fret over my lost book club, the one that never existed, before we had a lot bigger problems on our minds. Everything started happening online almost immediately. That was when I started thinking about doing a virtual book club.
Three months later, I got an invitation. My local Mensa group was hosting an online book club. Guess how it was going to be organized??
Since the first meeting was held right before my birthday, I took it as a sign that my desire had been met. I put the thought out there into the collective imagination cloud, and it rained down on me, in perhaps a better format than the one I would have made.
The only issue so far has been that I’ve already read about 80% of the recommended books. Another way to look at that is that this club is right on my wavelength, and that we will all probably enjoy one another’s suggestions.
After meeting twice, we decided to hold meetings twice a month. One meeting would be a free-for-all, and the other would be a theme, where we could either read a suggested book that we all voted on, or something related to the theme. We’re doing ‘time travel’ and ‘history of Southern California’ for our first topics if you want to do a sympathy read with us.
BTW I love Perry Mason how about you???
Safe-at-home is probably the best time in history to host a book club. You could wind up with people who share your reading tastes but live on another continent, several time zones away.
This is probably why I keep getting requests at work for a recommended reading list. I gave a talk about ideation a few weeks ago and people are still buzzing about it. I figured, what the heck, rather than post a reading list that is three pages long, why not just host it as a non-time-dimension discussion group. We’ll do a book a month, with specific chapters each week, and everyone can read them together. If there were ever a time when we could use more creative ideas on how to solve problems, that time is now.
How about you? Do you think it’s time to start a new book club?
The numbers freaked me out today. Maybe it’s my academic focus, I dunno, but I see things on a trend line. What keeps standing out to me is how every time there’s a prediction about the coronavirus, reality exceeds it. Whatever you think about numbers or public policy or “love over fear,” surely you can remember that sort of thing over only a six-month period?
When my husband and I decided to “prep for the coronavirus” back in February, we felt really smart about buying a month’s worth of freeze-dried food, an extra 6-pack of toilet paper, and extra shampoo and cleansers.
We assured each other we weren’t being too crazy, that it was okay if we had go-bags and a month of prepper food, we weren’t having a paranoid meltdown.
...and that was true
Not three weeks later, I was exposed. Our employer sent everyone home on the Friday and I contracted COVID-19 on the Sunday morning, not even 48 hours later. All of that was before anyone in the US shut anything down, if you can remember back that far.
This is why I went to work for them, because they have continued to have a better and more effective action plan than any entity in the country besides Apple. That’s my gauge for when it’s safe to come out: when the Apple Store opens at our local mall and our company calls everyone back in to work at our desks.
Everyone else, including me and my own household? We keep getting it wrong, shrugging, and getting it wrong again.
April 8: coronavirus death projection revised down to 60,000 [passed that on 4/30]
April 17: “Experts think 50,000 by the end of April” [actually 4/24]
May 15: “pass 100,000 by June 1” [actually 5/28]
...but then, strangely, it seems like death projections aren’t really in the headlines anymore? Hmm, I wonder why?
When I got sick, I was like “it’s airborne, I got it from someone who was sitting 10 feet away.” Of course in April 2020 that made me sound like I was either exaggerating or had no idea what I was talking about. How does it sound now?
When I got sick, I was like, “I know what day I was exposed and I didn’t start getting sick until the 16th day.” My doctor was like, “yeah, whatevs” until another week of symptoms, at which point he graciously apologized.
When I got sick, nothing I had was on The Official Symptoms List (tm). I kept having to tell people that my symptoms started with sneezing fits and itchy eyes, just so they would know not to talk themselves out of it.
My attitude is always going to be, whatever the mainstream idea is of something, I will be more cautious than that. I drive the speed limit (or at least, I used to before I canceled driving in my life). We save half our income. Ever since I dropped my keys down the elevator shaft I’ve been just that little bit extra careful.
(Except, that is, for the day I decided to go to brunch after prepping for what I recognized as a dangerous pandemic and then immediately contracted a deadly illness THE ONE TIME I WENT OUT).
That is the only reckless thing I’ve really ever done besides remarrying after a nasty divorce. But that was a risk that paid off.
Okay, so, by Jessica’s Rules everyone should assume “allergy symptoms” might actually be COVID, distance a minimum of 10 feet, and quarantine three weeks, not two. Not impossible. Not insane. Just - cautious enough not to get the dang thing the way I did.
For whatever reason, everyone else’s baseline assumptions seem to be to keep assuming that cautious people are overreacting and that their worst guesses can’t possibly happen. Even though all those estimates keep proving to be excessively optimistic.
Now, let’s talk about optimism for a minute.
I am an incurable optimist. I mean, seriously. I believe that pessimism is profoundly lazy, an abdication of the power to just keep on troubleshooting and persist in reframing for more options. Humans were born to solve problems and invent things. That is why we can use tools and recognize patterns.
On the other hand, as an historian I have to admit that default mode for humans is an endless tidal wave of BS. One problem followed by another problem followed by a double-up of problems, just to keep it interesting.
Optimism doesn’t mean we pretend that bad things aren’t going to happen, and a wicked lot of them. It means we believe that we can find a way to get past those bad things. We handle them. We figure out how to deal. We don’t ignore things, we confront them and wrestle them down.
Possibility thinking works best when we consider the widest possible array of potential issues, as well as good outcomes. Facing up to the worst risks, not just the most likely ones, can sometimes reveal much nicer solutions. And then we collectively feel that much more impressed with one another because we’ve done something on a larger scale.
This is part of how to make a strong marriage, by the way. Shared adversity. It works with family too, and that’s why every time I visit with my family we laugh so hard we fall over sideways.
We could be doing that together, as a nation. Or at least as a neighborhood. Here in Corona Cove CA I keep being less and less impressed with my neighbors every single day. A crisis is no time to be coughing and spitting on people and shouting at people while they’re just trying to do their jobs. Pull your socks up, geez.
This is what I think, as a futurist. I think that the rest of this year is going to be very, very bad for the United States. For whatever reason, a lot of people are very busy trying to deny how this thing has been working out so far. They’re going to be awfully depressed when they finally clue in to reality and the three-week lag time on the data.
Once we finally snap out of our collective delusion and start getting pragmatic, we can put our famed Yankee ingenuity into effect.
In World War II, we increased our production of airplanes by two orders of magnitude in only five years. 265 planes and a cargo ship every day. We know how to make things! We know how to make things fast!
When we feel like it, that is.
We’ve done a lot of underestimating this year. We’ve underestimated the nature of the enemy over and over again. (If you need reminding, “the enemy” is a vicious little human-hating virus that looks like a dog toy from hell). We’ve underestimated the sheer rudeness of people under stress. We’ve underestimated people’s emotional commitment and willingness to die (and kill) to preserve their notion of personal autonomy.
I think we’ve also underestimated our ability to pull together and work as a community. I think we’ve underestimated our ability to harness patriotism to fight this thing. I think we’ve underestimated our centuries-old core of inventiveness. We kick butt at a lot of things, and logistics, supply chain management, and R&D are a few of them.
If we can get Hot Cheetos to every convenience store in the land, if we can have 24-hour drive-thrus, then surely we can get swabs and vials. If we can teach each other to play Candy Crush and Angry Birds practically overnight, then we can teach each other how to avoid an airborne virus.
I believe in the American ability to get things done, and I believe in our ability to scale up testing, continue to test more and better treatments, and most especially, invent better-quality masks and filtration systems. If we’re going to win this battle, we’ve got to do it the same way we won WWII, with industry and with hustle and with innovation.
Long-winded, some might say. I was always a person who could go on and on, talking into the space until it was full. I think I’ve demonstrated that I can talk continuously for 24 hours, and if you’ve ever been on a road trip with me then you’re probably nodding right now.
Not long-winded anymore.
A couple years ago, when I was working on public speaking, I had a real issue with talking too fast. My big goal was to work on pausing. Every evaluator I had would suggest the same thing, so I knew it would be valuable. I just couldn’t train myself to do it.
Since COVID and pneumonia, guess what?
Now I can pause.
I mean, I have to. But also I can.
One of the many weird after-effects of this year, which has been so tough on my body, is that it seems to have lowered the register of my voice. It sounds deeper to me. I also notice that I speak more slowly and that I pause all the time.
What was a virus that is no longer detectable in my body - two negative tests so far - has wreaked permanent havoc. I do wonder, though, whether all of the changes are negative.
What if this experience has given me the gravitas I always wanted?
I was always small for my age, always looked younger, and I thought I would always have a high, small voice. This undoubtedly held me back in my career. Now I’m 45 and I probably do look my age. I no longer sound like a teenage girl. Maybe this will be good for me.
Of course there’s the undeniable gravitas of facing death, of living through an experience that many people find... qualifying.
(It turns out that most transformative experiences don’t actually impress people. Either they don’t care, they think you’re whining, they don’t believe you at all, or they don’t understand enough of your situation to realize it matters).
I had a minor nature encounter, back during my first marriage. I smelled and heard a little bobcat while walking in the woods in the pitch dark. It screamed and then I screamed. Activated my limbic system in a big way. I told the story during a safety presentation at work, and I realized partway in that every single person in the room thought I was totally full of it.
Now, a bobcat weighs less than 20 pounds, like a medium-sized dog, and there are around three million of them in Oregon.
For a person like myself who is comfortable in the backwoods, this was a fairly casual anecdote. I wasn’t claiming I raised one from a cub, or that it attacked me and scarred up my throat. I wasn’t even claiming I had seen it! The point of my story was that I was scared senseless, which I thought made me sound like a loser, or at least appropriately humble. Instead, it appeared I had made myself look like a BS artist.
It’s probably going to wind up being the same thing with COVID. Most people who get it will either never know (that they spread it to someone who died) or will be super sick for a few days. Maybe only about 20% will be in my tranche, of people who felt like they were dying but managed to stay out of the hospital.
What, no ventilator? No coma? No amputations? No seizures? Pfft. And you call yourself an invalid.
That’s pronounced INvalid, not inVALid...
I took out the trash just now, and when I came back, I flopped back into the couch, huffing and puffing like a pregnant walrus. My husband looked up from his book. “You made it!”
Then he checked my pulse.
The truth is that I’m still struggling. Most of my lingering symptoms are super dumb, petty annoyances that really don't count in the grand scheme of things. Yet I wonder if, cumulatively, they might add up to a list of things that a young person might find repulsive enough to avoid?
The twitching eyelid - my left eyelid has been twitching for weeks. Will it ever stop? Dunno.
The breakouts - the return of my teenage bad skin. It hasn’t been this bad in 25 years. Compared to the heart palpitations, this is truly nothing, but a 20-year-old might actually care about the boil on my chin or the chest acne. Put your mask on honey. This, you don’t want to happen to you.
The weight gain - yeah, everyone else gained weight eating all that nice sourdough bread during the first months of staying home. I can barely get my pants to zip. Now a ten-minute trip to the parking garage to take out the trash is my new “distance day.” I sincerely have no idea whether I’ll ever be able to work out again. I’ve barely moved in four months and all my boxing muscle has withered away.
The constant sneezing, runny nose, coughing - goodbye romantic life. It’s hard to imagine anything less sexy than a dripping nose, am I right?
The way I’ve become a crashing bore - every topic and every conversation seems to turn back to being ill, or the pandemic, or symptoms, or something COVID- or pneumonia-related. This is why young people avoid elderly people, and it’s also what makes someone “elderly.”
Not that long ago, I was a person who would run up the stairs two at a time. I would do box jumps at the park. You have no idea how many hula hoop tricks I know. In my heart and mind, I am still young and interesting, only now my body is ravaged and lumpy and full of boring things.
I’d say I can’t bear it, but I can. I have to. I’ve been bearing it so far.
COVID ruined my life. Ruined it.
Everything I think of as what makes me myself is not really an option. Can’t travel, can’t go backpacking, can’t go for a run, can’t throw dinner parties, can’t be with my family - most of this applies to everyone - but I also can’t fuss around cleaning my apartment for more than a few minutes a day. Haven’t yet figured out how to make a path for writing or public speaking the way I had planned. Not sleeping well. Can’t even “take a deep breath and relax” because I can’t do the first part anymore and rediscovering that each day is not relaxing whatsoever.
What’s needed is to come up with a new story. Maybe not a long-winded story, not one that is full of detail, but something. A story in a nutshell. A thumbnail sketch. A haiku of a story.
We can’t always talk our way out of things, but maybe we can at least imagine our way out.
I rearranged our few books today, and what I found shocked and surprised me. We haven’t quite been here a year, but there was a thick layer of dust on the back of each shelf!
Actually this shouldn’t surprise me at all, since we live with a parrot, and African Grays are little whistling dust factories. The shelves in question are only a few feet from where she plays all day, being her dusty self and merrily shredding cardboard.
On the other hand, I go around dusting when I’m on the phone, or listening to an audio book, or tense about something, or generally annoyed that there is visible dust somewhere. I am not a casual housekeeper.
I wish I were sometimes. I wish I could be a bit more casual about my apartment, in the same way I can be casual about going around barefoot, but it just isn’t in me. Even as I’m recovering from pneumonia and my bout with COVID-19, still only a few months ago.
What I noticed while I was wiping up this distressingly thick layer of dust was... just what was getting dusty.
Books I haven’t read, partly because I haven’t read much of anything since I started my new job.
This is another area where I have no chill whatsoever. Not sure why.
I took a job that was well within my abilities because I was looking for something to do. I figure we will be working from home for at least the next two years because I have a solidly pragmatic regard for the pandemic. Our employer acted before the governor did in sending everyone home, and I can tell you as a matter of simple fact that they still have a more clearly defined and carefully followed binder o’ guidelines for this crisis. It makes sense to me to be doing this for the duration, for a place I trust and respect.
Yet I can’t seem to escape this lingering sense that I’m constantly going to “get in trouble” for something.
I’ve talked it over with my husband, my best friend - who has done professional projects with me - and even my work partner. All of them are like, “Yeah, that’s weird. Where is that coming from?”
I’ve been proactively trying to figure it out, to work through my dissonant feelings about my job, and the way I always do that is to clean everything in sight. Sometimes, even things that are not in sight, like the backs of the bookshelves.
I recall that I went through similar paces with my leadership roles in Toastmasters. I won a contested election by the highest margin of any candidate that year, and all I did was beat myself up miserably all weekend. The entire year, I constantly felt behind and scattered and disorganized - and then I won two trophies for my performance in the role.
I’m looking at them right now and they still make me think, “What?!”
Sometimes it feels like the harder I work, the better I do, and the worse I feel about it.
I could have chosen to keep doing what I was doing, which was to work on side projects and writing my book proposal. We were already saving half our income and doing fine. I keep reminding myself that I am not trapped, that I chose something I really wanted, that I fought to get to where I am because it is so interesting.
Which it is!
Sometimes I catch myself thinking, Whoa, I can’t believe I’m actually in this meeting right now.
But then another wave comes up telling me that I’m colossally screwing up and everyone is going to find out.
It isn’t the same as impostor syndrome, I don’t think. The tasks I’m doing are all things I could do just as competently 15 years ago. I don’t really have moments where I do not know what to do or how to approach a task.
I actually wonder if something weird happened to my brain while I was ill?
If there’s some part of the brain that just makes someone feel racked with guilt and shame and dread for no reason?
It’s important to talk about this kind of thing, because I think most people feel very alone and isolated with these types of emotions. “I’m the only one and nobody must know.” I totally know that I’m not the only one.
The last six months have very much been a struggle of putting one foot in front of the other. I keep telling myself, “Just get through this day.” This included our dog dying of terminal cancer, and my husband nearly being blinded, as well as my getting COVID and trying to recover my baseline energy level. Again, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, just being overwhelmed by life and one legit crisis after another.
This is when I remind myself, I would probably feel the same exact types of emotions whether I had this job or not, whether I had a different job or not. It’s not a function of the role, or the company, or the people, or the culture. It’s me and whatever is haunting me.
Working is a million times better than sitting around staring at the walls and feeling this way.
When we internalize these dark feelings, it’s so easy to forget that there are external influences at work too. Probably my emotional waves of “you’re going to get busted” are just my feeble brain’s way of dealing with the foreign, confusing, outlandish reality of life under quarantine. (Yeah, technically my hubby and I are still quarantined - by both medical and business guidelines - because I’m still coughing a little).
Do any of us really know how we’re “supposed” to feel during this strange historical moment?
What I’d like to do is to dust myself off. I’d like to blow off these feelings that are so unhelpful and unnecessary. What should I replace them with? The task is to come up with some unique, interesting, and plausible feelings, like earning someone’s regard, or satisfaction in a job well done.
We can remind ourselves that our mission is simply to live up to our own standards and be consistent with our own values. One day after the next.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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